Douglas Cruickshank

"What more is possible?
After us the Savage God."

--- William Butler Yeats, after seeing
the first performance of "Ubu Roi"

WE'RE FINALLY STARTING TO get somewhere. What the turn-of-the-century avant-garde began, contemporary physicists may finish by the turn-of-the-millennium. Unfortunately the guy who would probably be most gratified checked out in 1907. I'm referring to the recent breakthrough in creating atoms of anti-matter, and also to the late playwright, poet, artist and freelance scoundrel Alfred Jarry (born 1873) who, among other accomplishments, was Pablo Picasso's weapon supplier. (Picasso used the pistol to shoo away bores, but we'll get to that later.)

Anti-matter, as you can guess, is the opposite of matter. In fact when matter and anti-matter come in contact with one another they explode. Scientists and the popular press don't like to use the word explode because it's too, well, explosive, and leads to unpleasant associations and bad public relations. Instead, when referring to close encounters between atoms of matter and anti-matter they'll use a phrase like "instantly annihilate each other, releasing a burst of energy" (Associated Press, 5 January 1996). Where I come from that describes an explosion, but perhaps I'm missing something.

Anyway, awhile back at CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics in Geneva, Switzerland (the same folks that brought us the  the World Wide Web) an international team of physicists created atoms of anti-matter for the first time; they conjured up nine of the little scutters. The world, as Aristotle long ago determined, is made of matter. The anti-world, as the physicists seem to have confirmed, is made of anti-matter. At the time of the anti-matter materialization, CERN's spokesman remarked that "This discovery opens the door into a completely new anti-world." It may be a "tiny Alice in Wonderland door," he added, that will forever change physicists' understanding of reality once they gaze through it. Where I come from that describes a portal to a parallel universe, but perhaps I'm missing something.

Alfred Jarry, whose work prefigured theater of the absurd, Dada, Surrealism and Futurism also may have anticipated certain modern physics theories. Jarry is most famous for his satire/farce Ubu Roi (King Ubu), which ignited a scandal when it was first performed in 1896, and hasn't exactly been embraced by the mainstream in the century since. He is also known as the founder of 'pataphysics. "'Pataphysics," Jarry wrote, "is the science of imaginary solutions...extending as far beyond metaphysics as the latter extends beyond physics." In attempting to explain Jarry (which is about impossible), Picasso biographer John Richardson observed: "[Jarry] crashed the barrier between fantasy and reality, and established the parodic sense of 'pataphysics, which would detonate all traditional canons of beauty, good taste and propriety." (In other words, turn the world upside down and inside out; take reality and snap it like a magician's cloak --- abracadabra: anti-matter!) What Richardson doesn't say is that if Jarry were still around, and if he were willing to enter a 12 step program (he drank himself to death by age 34), CERN might be offering him a job. And why not? Though they would probably be horrified at the suggestion, the physicists are working the same side of the street as Jarry, they're just using different equipment and jargon. But it's always interesting --- isn't it? --- when art, science and even religion disclose similar information.

"'Pataphysics, Jarry wrote, "will examine the laws governing exceptions, and will explain the universe supplementary to this one; or, less ambitiously, will describe a universe which can be --- and perhaps should be --- envisaged in the place of the traditional one." While CERN's anti-matter press release states, "Newton's historic work on gravity was supposedly prompted by watching an apple fall to earth, but would an 'anti-apple' fall in the same way? It is believed that anti-matter 'works' under gravity in the same way as matter, but if nature has chosen otherwise, we must find out how and why." To which Jarry replied, ninety-odd years before CERN asked the question, "Instead of formulating the law of the fall of a body toward a center, how far more apposite would be the law of the ascension of a vacuum toward a periphery..."

Yes, and contrary to Einstein's assertion, perhaps we'll find that in the anti-world God not only plays dice, he spells his name backwards. Or maybe he spells it P-i-c-a-s-s-o. After all, it would seem Jarry, Picasso (who happily pitched a rock through the stained glass window of reality), and a handful of others beat CERN to the punch by nearly a century. It may turn out that nothing's what it seems. What a surprise that would be.

So, in the absence of a butler, where does the gun fit in? Apparently Jarry sent it to Picasso and on more than one occasion the cubist deity fired it into the air when he found the conversation monotonous. It sounds like a brutal act, but in the anti-world guns give life, they don't take it away. "Truth," Picasso was fond of saying, "is a lie." And now the physicists are proving it.

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